By BEN BAUGH
It’s about making the most of your opportunities.
Stone Crabs infielder Jake Palomaki, is doing something the preponderance of the population isn’t, he’s living his dream.
Palomaki lived the first decade of his life in Michigan, having been born in the state’s capital, Lansing. His family would eventually relocate to Georgia, where he would begin playing baseball.
“I actually made one of the East Cobb travel teams, growing up around East Cobb and kept developing my game,” said Palomaki.
The athlete’s upward trajectory from his nascent stages was mercurial, in that by the end of his sophomore year in high school, he had committed to play at Boston College. He had drawn the interest of several military colleges and smaller local schools, but a number of Division I programs began to take notice after he signed, including Tennessee, Coastal Carolina and Georgia. It was through his high school coach, who had connections with the Eagles, that he would eventually make his sojourn north.
“I decided I wanted to stick with BC, I figured I’d get a chance to play right away,” said Palomaki. “They seemed most interested in me, and that’s how that kind of all worked out.”
The culture at Boston College seemed to suit Palomaki perfectly, and his transition to playing collegiately agreed with the multi-position player.
“I was very lucky to have an opportunity early, to capitalize on that opportunity,” said Palomaki. “It was a perfect fit for me. If you work hard, you’re going to get a chance to play; luckily there was an open spot, and I came in and filled the role as needed. It’s just a grinder mentality, work hard, get the job done. It’s small ball up there. Pitching and defense win ball games. That’s kind of what they preach.”
It’s Palomaki’s disciplined approach and high on-base percentage that seemed to separate him early in his intercollegiate career, establishing a new Eagle standard during his freshman year.
“I set the single-season walk record (46),” said Palomaki, who walked 119 times in his first three years at Boston College, good for a .427 on-base percentage. “It just happened over the course of the season (referring to his ability to draw walks during his freshman year). If it’s in my zone, I was going to attack it. But it wasn’t something that I worked on. I was just staying within myself, making the pitcher come to me, not really chasing. I was just trying to get on base as much as I could my freshman year.”
Palomaki, who was the captain of his high school team at Mount Paran Christian High School as a junior and senior, and one of the captains on his team at Boston College, a roster that featured a number of talented players.
“Early on, we had Chris Shaw, he was in the big leagues last year with the Giants,” said Palomaki. “He was hitting behind me, so I was trying to get on base to let him drive me in during my freshman year. Then my sophomore year, we had a couple of big bats behind me too. Just kind of the process of me getting on base and scoring runs. That was my job, so that’s what I was trying to do.”
The transition to the professional ranks from that of his time playing at Boston College was markedly different. He had to make a series of adjustments to adapt to the new environment. His understanding of baseball has been a large intangible in his evolution, and beneficial to his play as he navigates through unfamiliar waters.
“It’s a lot different,” said Palomaki. “I signed last year and went straight to Princeton. It’s kind of an eye-opening experience as to how professional baseball works. It’s a lot different atmosphere because you’re always trying to move up. In college, you’re there for four years, regardless. So, that was a little bit different. Everyone has a different kind of agenda, when you get there, so you have to kind of take a deep breath and realize this is the same game you’ve been playing your whole life. Once I was able to settle in, I started rolling again, started doing what I was used to doing.”
The Rays organization places an emphasis on versatility, and Palomaki’s ability to adjust to different positions is something that he’s done for the better part of his time in the game.
“My freshman year in college, I started at third base, and my sophomore and junior year, I played second base and then my senior year, I played shortstop,” said Palomaki. “But we would always preach, take ground balls every year. All season, everywhere, just so when we got to this level, it’s not new to switch over to third base, go to second base or go to shortstop. It’s been a big asset for me.
“And then this spring training, I was getting a lot of reps in the outfield. So, I went to Bowling Green this year, and I played a lot of left field. I worked on that too. So, I’m trying to broaden it up, so I can go out there when I need to, give someone the day off out there.”
The Stone Crabs coaching staff has played a large role in Palomaki’s transformation as a professional, providing him with a deep group of resources to tap into, so he has both the mental makeup, baseball skills and physical wherewithal to succeed.
“They’ve been great, they do a great job in the early work with us, whatever we want to work on,” said Palomaki. “Coach Ochoa does a great job in working with us. Szek (Joe Szekely) does a great job with the hitters and Smitty (Jeff Smith) does a great job overseeing everything, and chirping when it’s needed. They’ve been making me feel at home.”
Ivan Ochoa, a former major league infielder with the San Francisco Giants, has been working closely with Palomaki to improve his fielding.
“We recently worked with my pre-pitch, starting to set up, doing the same thing every time,” said Palomaki. “We’ve been working on widening my feet, being a little bit lower when I field ground balls. He’s been great. Just the little things. He always films us during games, so he knows exactly what we need to work on and get better at. He’s been awesome.”
However, it’s Palomaki’s humble demeanor, his sense of gratitude and enthusiastic spirit for life that helps define his character.
“This was always my dream, growing up,” said Palomaki. “I always wanted to play professional baseball, I knew I could. It was just whether I could get a chance or not. So, I’ve been very fortunate that the Rays gave me a chance, and I just try to capitalize on it every single day.”